It had been four months since Inej's last visit. Four months since she'd pulled into berth twenty-two with her black ship and her wily crew and her boatful of young women ready to come home to their parents and live their lives the way Inej hadn't. Four months since she'd stood at the end of the dock, silhouetted against the Ketterdam skyline, arms outstretched as though she were moments away from taking flight. The dock was warped and nearly rotting from years upon years of use, the once magnificent oak planks sagging but resilient against the crashing waves of the Ketterdam harbor.
Four months since Kaz Brekker had seen her smile, heard her laugh. She'd let her hand rest on the railing of the dock as he'd limped to a stop beside her, black coat pulling backwards in the salty ocean wind. "What business?" She'd asked with a curl of laughter. She'd stretched out her fingers and Kaz had obliged her a touch of his ungloved fingertips, tracing the veins and the tendons of her hand with unprecedented care and unspoken affection. The water lapping at his ankles had receded for a moment, drying and evaporating under the warmth of Inej's ethereal stare.
There were many things Kaz had learned to let himself accept about Inej, things that he hadn't wanted to accept in the years since his brother had passed away. First, he'd learned to accept her company.
Inej, whether he wanted her or not, was always there. She hovered on his windowsill, in the corner of his mind, and if he wasn't careful, she'd creep into his consciousness at every waking moment. Nobody plagued his every step quite like she did, and when they'd first met, when he'd first rescued her — she'd immediately wormed her way into his cognizance with a ferocity that nobody had yet been able to match.
Secondly, he'd learned to accept her. She was a force of nature in her own right. Hurricane Inej, he'd once called her. She blew through his sorry life, taking hold of his lapels and tugging him into an endless abyss of adventure and confusion and breathtaking beauty that Kaz hadn't known still existed. She'd shoved into him, knocking him off his carefully perfected balance atop a tower of isolation, and it had taken him years to finally realize that it might not have been such a bad thing. She evened him out, let him remember that he wasn't always the monster Ketterdam had molded him into. When she gripped his shoulders with those long fingers of hers and steered him towards some semblance of sanity, Kaz had learned to accept that he needed her a lot more than he'd let on.
Part of accepting Inej, though, was not only accepting her mental presence, but also her physical one. She'd learned, of course, to keep her distance, but as time went on, as months passed, Kaz felt himself yearning for the light drift of her fingers over his cheek, the pull of her hands through his shock of dark hair. It was maddening, enough to keep him up at night and get his limbs shivering almost imperceptibly any time she was near.
He'd first accepted her touch the day she'd reunited with her parents, almost a year and a half before. Since then, he'd craved it like a drug, training himself to resist the black water in his lungs and the shadows in his brain if only to accept her touch for longer, for more, to savor it like he might savor a fat stack of kruge or a kill made in vengeance.
He'd gotten far, but not far enough.
They'd stayed like that for a moment, his hand tracing hers, and then she'd pulled away, turning towards the ship he'd gifted her so long ago. She'd tilted her face towards the sky, taken a breath of the musty Barrel air, and let out a bone-rattling sigh. She'd turned towards Kaz, dark eyes searching his face, then spoke five words Kaz would not dare to forget. "It's good to be home."
The boy unshakeable had been shaken to his great black icy core, for once his confusion displayed across his face in high-definition. "The rest of the world must be very terrible if you can consider this place home," he said, his mouth a grim slash across his angled features. Inej tilted her head to the side, reaching up with one hand to cup the side of his face. He'd tensed beneath her palm, felt his pulse race to a climax then slowly begin to fall back as he found an anchor in the curves of her fingers and the line of her throat.
She'd worked the tip of her thumb across his mouth, easing the lines of stress that had formed the moment she'd spoken. "You're my home, Kaz Brekker." She'd offered him a smile that had sent his pulse fluttering under her pinky and for a moment they'd stood like that, his cheek warm against her calloused skin, the wind at their backs and a city of sin behind them, unforgiving and unaware. And then she'd pulled her hand away, leaving Kaz breathless and dizzy with too much and too little all at the same time.
Her mouth, which had been pulled into a beautiful smile, had melted into something sadder, something much more ancient. "But I have to leave." She'd told him, and his skin had buzzed with something Kaz could only describe as frustration. He wanted to scream, to shake his head and capture her mouth in a kiss and make her laugh again, make her smile in that special way that made his heart thaw into something more alive, more real. But he didn't. He'd taken a step back, combing his fingers through the shorn hair on the side of his head. He'd gulped down the dry lump in his throat and he'd let his honed, perfected poker face take shape on his pale features.
"Of course," he'd murmured, voice nothing more than a rasp. "No mourners," he told her, shifting his gaze towards her own, quickly documenting the curve of her lip, the angle of her jaw, the outline of her wide brown eyes.
She offered him one last tiny smile, a few loose strands of her dark hair alighting butterfly-light against her high cheekbones. "No funerals." She echoed, voice softer than he'd ever heard it. He'd dipped his head in a polite nod, and then she'd brushed past him, letting her fingers trail one last time against his arm as she'd returned to the Wraith and her life's calling. He'd watched her go, slim figure silhouetted against the sun, and just like that — she was gone. Fingers of anguish lanced up his spine as he watched the Wraith fade to a pinprick against the skyline of the True Sea and then he forced himself to turn around, black coat buffeting the back of his legs.
Four months since he'd felt any semblance of peace, four months since the sea didn't scare him senseless and he could bear to watch the horizon for that little black dot of a vessel. Four months and three days exactly — and then the bells of berth twenty-two clanged across the Barrel, deafening and elegant at the same time.
In the four months she'd been gone, Kaz had closed in on himself. He'd conducted business as usual, as if a fissure hadn't opened in his black soul, as if he hadn't been waking up every day feeling like a Heartrender had decided to have a play-date with his innards. He'd taken a liking to prowling the sidewalks of the wealthy neighborhoods, watching those who recognized the boy with the limp and the leatherbound hands skitter across the street, eyes low and heads ducked. Men and women alike would see the glint of sunlight on the silver-topped cane and the wind-tossed black hair and he'd watch their eyes widen with recognition, followed shortly by fear.
He'd loved it.
But it wasn't the same.
Without Inej around, Kaz had come to terms with the excruciatingly large rift between him and that which had formerly grounded him to the Barrel, to his civility, to his carefully selected persona of cool, calm, and collected. It had gotten worse with each of her visits, the short moments in which she'd stand with him on the dock and they'd trade soft, yearning comments until she was called to her ship once more. With each departure, the fissure had widened, finally leaving him as nothing more than an open wound. With each return, Inej took a fistful of salt and scrubbed him down with it, with her smiles and her soft touches and the light in her eyes when she told him how many slavers she'd managed to affront with a few swipes of her precious knives.
He loved the rush of power he'd felt on those city streets, men and women cowering before him without needing to lift a finger on his part. A quick glance at a skittish mercher would send a tremble of fear through the patrons of the sidewalk; a nod and a hyena grin at a young woman might cause her to faint on the spot.
The yawning chasm in his soul left little room for remorse, so when a greasy mercher had nearly knocked him over on the sidewalk, a simple swipe of his cane had shattered the man's left kneecap. Kaz had bent, eyes narrowing, and grabbed the front of the man's shirt. "Don't knock over a cripple," he'd growled, then dropped the man, continuing on his merry way down the cobblestone pavement.
Four months of this had passed.
He'd made it a habit of his, to pass through these streets at least once a week. Well into the fourth month of her absence, Kaz was executing his weekly routine — he'd dressed himself in his best coat, worn his best tie, combed back his hair with his fingers. He'd selected himself a busier street, aiming for maximum collateral damage. Today was certainly a busy day; men and women, merchers and performers, gangmembers and sailors alike were mingling on the sidewalks, ogling the pleasure houses and the Grisha storefronts and the komedie troupes that had set up tiny stages along the wide, gaping sidewalks. The crowd parted like water before Kaz, though, scrambling to get out of his way — a sight he'd never get tired of — and he was walking with his chin up when something small and warm bumped his leg.
Unwarranted anger lanced through his nimble frame and he snapped his head down, only to be clouded with sudden confusion. At his feet was a little girl, no more than three feet tall, her dark ringlets pulled into tight pigtails at the top of her head. She wore a little pink dress that swung around her knees, and in her tiny hand she clutched a large, striped lollipop that Kaz could have sworn was bigger than her own head. He took a tentative step back, anger coming to a heel in his chest, and watched her step into the street. The cobblestones were cracked and crushed up against one another like pigs in a slaughterhouse, laced with moss and sunken in a few places. Streets weren't common in Ketterdam, not where canals were the main source of transportation, so even the streets in the wealthy district weren't very well maintained. For a moment Kaz wondered if the little girl might trip and hurt herself, but the thought was quieted by another shriek from the child.
"Papa!" She called, lifting her free hand to wave frantically at a man immersed in conversation on the other side of the street. When he didn't turn, the little girl dropped her arms, lower lip jutting out. She pouted there, right in the middle of the street, and as Kaz watched this peculiar scenario, he noticed a growl in the distance. It was a rumble familiar to anyone in the Barrel, even moreso to men and women who resided in the upper class neighborhoods — a wagon. He heard the thunder of hoofbeats, the clatter of wheels against pavement, the crack of the driver's whip against the sweating flanks of the horses lashed to the cart itself. The cart was black, trimmed in red and gold, stamped with the breaching whale insignia of an insignificant mercher whose name temporarily escaped Kaz's consciousness.
But this driver, either drunk or stupid, didn't seem to be slowing down — and neither did his horses. Their eyes rolled and their nostrils flared as his whip split the air above them, driving them into a frenzy as they thundered down the street. The horses were huge black beasts with sunken eyes and cracked hooves. They were malnourished, Kaz noted unhelpfully, before shifting his gaze back to the girl.
And that little girl, blast her — she didn't seem to understand the dangers of her situation. Shoving her thumb in her mouth, she dropped to her rump in the middle of the street, tears welling in her big brown eyes.
Kaz, heart stuttering in his chest (something that hadn't happened in four months) lifted a hand. "Hey!" He shouted over the din of the crowd, trying to get the attention of the little girl. The rumble of the frenzied cart grew louder and louder and he jerked his head to the side, watching as it swerved and tumbled down the long stretch of the street.
The horses screamed, the crowd stilled for a moment, and the driver of the carriage, clearly out of his mind, cracked his whip, the tapered leather slicing through the air like a bolt of lightning. The little girl didn't move.
Kaz gripped the handle of his cane, knuckles white under the leather of his gloves. His eyes flicked from the carriage to the girl, from the wild horses to the unassuming father across the street. The bastard hadn't even stopped his conversation.
His heart hammered out a staggering rhythm in his chest. He heard Inej's voice in his ear, for the first time since she'd left. "Go get her," she murmured, and then Kaz was off, moving faster than he thought possible.
In moments he'd reached the little girl, who'd finally noticed the wild carriage and was now frozen in fear. Hooking his cane over his arm, he bent down despite the protest of his bad leg and scooped the girl off her feet. She shrieked, finally finding her voice, and he fought to keep from covering his ears as he dove out of the way of the carriage. Locking both arms around her, he turned into his dive and skidded across the cobblestone on his back, heart thundering like a thousand horses as he watched the carriage tear across the spot the little girl had been sitting.
He let out a soft groan, sure he'd scraped the hell out of his back, and unhooked his arms from around the little girl. She'd been beating a steady rhythm on his chest with her tiny fists, lollipop discarded and shattered on the cobblestone below. She scrambled out of his arms, tearing towards her father (who'd taken the time to turn and watch with horror as his daughter had nearly been flattened). She dove behind his legs, tiny arms nicked in a few places from their fall.
Kaz stood, using his cane to lift himself, then brushed off the bottom of his coat, a sigh curling past his lips. Stepping onto the sidewalk, he limped heavily towards the oblivious mercher. Extending a gloved hand, he let a jackal's smile pull across his features. "Kaz Brekker," he mused thickly. The mercher tentatively took his hand, trying unsuccessfully to mask his trembling. "I suggest you keep a better eye on your daughter." Kaz gestured at the street with his cane. "Next time she runs out like that, I'll make sure you get pushed down with her."
Haughtily squeezing the man's hand for good measure, he added, "And buy her a new lollipop. She'll want to see that you're still as good a father as she thinks you are." He let go of the mercher's hand. "Have a nice day." He wagged his fingers at the sweating man and turned around, shoulders prickling with leftover aggravation.
Ducking back into the crowd, Kaz began to make his way back to the Crow Club. He'd had enough heroism to last a few weeks, not to mention the mountainous stack of paperwork waiting on his desk. He had half a mind to stop to get a drink on the way home, to visit Jesper and Wylan in the Van Eck estate, but in moments his entire frame was buzzing with energy, as if he'd been shocked by a Squaller. He felt it in abundance just under his ears and near the back of his neck, a feeling he'd come to know as familiar as the backs of his own hands.
He stopped on the end of the sloping sidewalk, tucking his hands into his hair as he fought to regain the feeling in his arms — and then he heard it.
Clear and bright, resounding across the city and rattling off the stone walls and the cobbled streets, was the sound of the Tidemaker bell — it signaled the arrival of a new ship to the harbor. Some ships were signaled by certain patterns and tones, others by a set amount of strikes to the large iron bells. Many merchant ships were announced by two sharp lashes to the bell, diplomat ships by five, ships from the First and Second Army by three.
But there was only one ship that was marked by seven sharp strikes to the bell. Kaz listened, waited, counted — and on the sixth strike, he was running.
He'd made it to berth twenty-two out of breath and in a sorry state, hair wind-blown and face flushed with unwanted heat. The black ship, steady and familiar in her dock, sent his heart into a frenzy. His lungs punched against his ribs as he watched the gangplank slide from the side of the ship, watched the first of the Wraith's crew disembark, flanked by a small army of young women. He smoothed his hair with his fingers, peeled his gloves from his fingers, and sucked in a rattling breath, face stony. His leg screamed in protest from his short run to the dock, but he ignored it with a clenched jaw and a few pained blinks.
It seemed like weeks, months, years — and then she was there. She emerged from the deck of the ship and stepped nimbly down the gangplank, eyes already seeking Kaz's dark form. He blinked hard, giving his cane a squeeze, then started forwards. He expected nothing more than the usual — she'd dock for an hour or two, reload on supplies, then set off — but the moment she saw him, she broke into a run the likes of which Kaz had never seen.
He stopped moving, confusion skirting across his face for a brief moment before Inej slammed into him, arms curling around him in a crushing hug that took his breath away. He considered it a small miracle that he hadn't tipped backwards, thanks to his bad leg — making a mental note to thank whatever Saints Inej worshipped, he let go of his cane and let his arms snake around her shoulders, pulling her into an equally suffocating hug that he hoped she wouldn't take too personally.
"Inej," he rasped. His cane clattered to the docks and for a moment Kaz went blind with happiness, acutely aware of the fact that no part of Inej was touching his skin. However, after a moment, she turned her head into the crook between his shoulder and his chin and he felt — as strongly as he might have felt a knife to his throat — her warm breath on his collar, the light brush of her eyelashes, the press of her nose to his jugular, but most of all — the unmistakable wetness of her cheeks.
Using every bit of self control in his body he forced back the black water lapping at his ankles and placed his hands on Inej's shaking shoulders. Pushing her back so he could see her face, his mouth pulled into a dark frown when he took notice of a few new scars — on her upper lip, on the opposite side of her chin, slashed through her left eyebrow.
Her face, once warm and strong and everything Kaz wasn't — was sunken. Hollow. As if the Inej he had once known was nothing more than a husk of who she'd been, nothing more than a soul trapped in a body not meant for her.
And Kaz swore to himself that he'd hunt down whoever had done this to her.
His thoughts must have shown on his face, because Inej wiped her tears with the back of her hand. "Do you know what they call me?" She asked, dropping her hands to her sides. Her eyes, once bright with enthusiasm, were cold, empty.
Kaz thought he might give her the stars in the skies to get that familiar shine back. He tilted his head, confused. "The Wraith? The Most Talented Person To Sail the True Sea?" Upon further reflection, he realized it had not been the best time for his particular brand of humor — she blinked at him, eyes wide as moons, and whispered so lowly he almost didn't hear —
Kaz felt his heart stop in his chest.
Blinking like a spooked toad, he watched as her face crumpled in on itself. He knew she'd done bad things to the slavers. He knew she would have done anything to free those girls on the ships. The single word was like a backhand slap across his cheek, hard enough to bruise. He'd survived tavern brawls and bar fights but never had he felt so angry, so upset, so sad at the same time.
He lifted his bare hands, letting them hover in the air beside her face before choking down a wave of panic and letting them settle on her cheeks. Thumbs brushing the tears from her cheekbones, he tilted her head up so he could look her in the eye.
"That name," he began, "is not your burden to bear." His voice sounded strange to him, less like stone scraping against stone and more like something softer, something much sweeter than he ever thought he'd be able to manage. "Your name," he said lowly, "is Inej Ghafa." He spread his fingers, his pinky coming to rest on the pulse at her throat as she had done so many months before.
"You are not a monster, Inej. I've got enough monster in me for the both of us." He bent his head, a sigh escaping him. "But you're the Wraith. You're the scourge of slavers everywhere, just like I am Dirtyhands, the Bastard of the Barrel, Ketterdam's foulest creation." He wiped another tear with the pad of his thumb, his heart skipping another beat when she leaned into his touch, lips parting in a soft sigh.
"That does not make you any less noble, or me any less of a monstrosity." He bent his forehead, letting it come to rest against hers at the protest of the water at his feet. Her eyelashes, long and thick, fanned across her cheekbones as she slid her eyes shut. "There isn't anyone on this saintsforsaken island who doesn't have a crime to their name or a title to go along with it." He dropped his voice to a whisper, barely containing himself when he felt her warm breath ghost across his lips.
"This life we live, our crimes, our demons — it's all relative." He went quiet for a moment, listening to her breathe, her pulse pounding against his fingertip. "Don't let it get to you."
They were silent for another deafening instance before Inej opened her eyes — Kaz could have sworn he could see the stars in them — and then she tilted her chin upwards, closing the gap between their mouths in a kiss that Kaz would have guessed was four months overdue.
His brain popped and exploded with fireworks and deep waters and he fought for control over himself before he gave into Inej, grounding himself against the warmth and the solidity of her lips. He anchored himself to her, and as her hands pushed through his hair, he couldn't help but wonder why he'd ever imagined that she'd leave him for good.
That day, on the dock, Kaz Brekker was no longer the monster with the longest fangs and the sharpest talons.
He was Kaz Brekker — a boy most definitely, most certainly —